Taking Advantage of Chile’s Moment in the Sun to Commemorate Letelier and Moffitt

This week, with its flawless mine rescue operation, the occasion on which Chile has captured the attention of the world has been an uplifting one. (Overlooking for the moment the poor safety record of the company that owned the mine and bribe-susceptible mine inspectors.) It’s a far cry from what once thrust Chile on the world stage — the junta which staged a coup over socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.

Its leader, Gen. August Pinochet, ruled until 1990, all the while generating human rights abuses by the bushel. It also turned out to be yet another instance in which the United States positioned itself on the wrong side of not just the law, but human decency, by directing money to anti-Allende elements before the coup and then supporting the government that emerged.

Serendipitously, with Chile in the news, October 13 was the day that the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) issued its annual Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards. For those new to reading Focal Points or Foreign Policy in Focus, it might be a good time to revisit IPS’s encounter with Chilean politics and pay tribute to the namesakes of those awards.

Orlando Letelier served as President Allende’s ambassador to the United States, minister of foreign relations and the minister of defense. When Pinochet seized power, he was arrested and tortured. Upon his release in 1974, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he became an IPS senior fellow and a leading voice of the Chilean resistance. Ronni Moffitt was his 25-year-old assistant at IPS.

It was only two years later that a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of the car which he was driving with Ms. Moffitt seated on the passenger side exploded. The attack was carried out by Chilean secrect police, a former American CIA agent, and anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, said of Pinochet, “It is clear that the Chilean secret police did not act without his authorization.”

As IPS Interim Director Joy Zarembka recently wrote last month in a memorial tribute to Ms. Moffit, “Until 9/11, most Americans didn’t believe that a terrorist attack could ever happen on U.S. soil. Yet one had occurred just a generation earlier — on September 21, 1976 on Embassy Row in Washington.”

Years later, after an investigation prompted by pressure from the Letelier and Moffit families, the FBI recommended that Pinochet be indicted, but the Bush administration let it die on the vine. Ms. Zarembka writes that “as I learn more about this particular case, I’m further struck by the U.S. government’s complicity.” President Bush’s father was CIA director at the time and evidence suggests that U.S. officials were aware the attack was imminent.

IPS continues to support the fight for justice in South America. The three recipients of the Letelier-Moffitt award (follow the links for details): Guatemala’s Historic National Police Archives, Honduras Human Rights Platform, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.